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MERS: worst may be past

The World Health Organisation has indicated that the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) outbreak that has so far claimed 24 lives in South Korea may have passed its peak.

While warning that it was critical health authorities closely monitor the situation, the WHO’s Emergency Committee has nonetheless declared that South Korean efforts to track and quarantine infected people had “coincided with a decline in the incidence of cases”.

Since the first case was reported in South Korea last month, 166 people in the North Asian country are confirmed to have been infected with MERS, including 30 currently receiving treatment, while a further 5930 are in quarantine at home or in medical facilities.

Fears that the disease might spread further in the region were fuelled earlier this week when Thai officials reported a visiting businessman from Oman had fallen ill with the disease, and 59 people who had been in contact with have been placed in quarantine.

But the WHO praised South Korean health authorities for rapidly alerting their Chinese counterparts about an infected traveller, who was quickly located and isolated.

The World Health Organisation’s Emergency Committee, which met earlier this week to discuss the outbreak, said it was not yet serious enough to warrant the declaration of a public health emergency, and advised that travel restrictions and airport screening were not necessary.

Nonetheless, the Committee warned the outbreak was “a wake-up call” for governments about the speed with which serious infectious diseases could spread “in a highly mobile world”.

“All countries should always be prepared for the unanticipated possibility of outbreaks of this and other serious infectious diseases,” it said. “The situation highlights the need to strengthen collaboration between health and other key sectors, such as aviation, and to enhance communication processes.”

No cases have been reported in Australia, and a Federal Health Department spokeswoman said the risk of MERS arriving in Australia was considered to be low, at least for the time being.

But health and border protection authorities are on alert for the disease, and the Federal Government is planning to warn Australians travelling overseas, particularly to the Middle East as part of the Hajj pilgrimage, about MERS and what precautions they need to take to minimise the chances of infection.

Though Korean authorities have been praised for the strength of recent actions to control the spread of MERS, serious shortcomings in their initial response have been blamed for helping the outbreak gain momentum.

The WHO Emergency Committee detailed a number of factors that helped the disease spread, including ignorance of MERS among health workers and the broader public; “suboptimal” infection prevention and control measures in hospitals; keeping patients infected with MERS in crowded emergency departments and wards for extended periods; the behaviour of patients in going to several different doctors and hospitals for treatment; and the custom of family and friends staying with their infected loved ones in hospital.

“There are still many gaps in knowledge regarding the transmission of this virus between people, including the potential role of environmental contamination, poor ventilation and other factors,” the Committee said, though adding that there was no evidence of sustained transmission in the community.

Adrian Rollins

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